Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Candle Power

With only days to go before the big event, hundreds of millions of people around the globe are busy planning for Earth Hour. If last year’s festivities are any indication, burning candles will help to illuminate the hour.

There are a number of reasons why this may not necessarily be the best way to celebrate. For starters, the whole idea behind Earth Hour is to raise awareness (and action) on climate change. The primary cause of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels, and the subsequent release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In Ontario, power is generated in a variety of ways, including nuclear, hydroelectric, wind and fossil fuel generation. Fossil fuel plants, fired by coal, oil and natural gas are generally only used when the demand for electricity reaches its peak. At this time of year (when air conditioners aren’t running) this peak period is usually recorded on weekdays between 3:00 and 8:00 pm. The rest of the time the bulk of our power is provided by either hydroelectric or nuclear stations, neither of which produces greenhouse gas emissions. This off-peak period would include the time covering Earth Hour, Saturday, March 28th, between 8:30 and 9:30 pm.

Candles, on the other hand, are mostly made from paraffin wax – a petroleum by-product. Burning paraffin candles releases carbon dioxide (and an bunch of other nasty stuff) into the atmosphere. Lighting a fire also produces carbon dioxide and other products of combustion.

As an alternative to burning paraffin candles, there are a number of environmentally responsible options beyond simply sitting in the dark.

Flameless candles are battery operated and provide a natural flicker of light. LED candles are a lot less realistic, but are very energy efficient. Both are available at home specialty stores. Flashlights also provide a safe, greenhouse gas free light. For greater efficiency invest in an LED flashlight. In every case, don’t forget to recycle your batteries when depleted.

If you don’t mind a little exercise, you can eliminate the need for batteries by investing in a hand-powered LED flashlight. Depending on the model, power is generated by either shaking or cranking the flashlight vigorously.

If only the open flame will do, purchase candles that are made from beeswax or soy. While they are more expensive than paraffin candles, both are clean burning and are made from renewable resources.

Whether they are made from beeswax, soy or paraffin, candle safety is paramount during Earth Hour (and any other time you have an open flame in your home.) Here’s a list of candle safety tips from Health Canada:

• First and foremost, make sure that your smoke alarms are in good working condition.
• Always place the candle in a non-combustible container. Be careful with glass containers because they can become overheated and break suddenly.
• Don't use wood or plastic candleholders, they can catch fire. Metal candleholders are safer, but they can get extremely hot.
• Place candle away from other combustibles, such as curtains and furniture.
• Don’t use candles decorated with ribbons, bows or other add-ons. These items are extremely flammable and increase the risk of burns. Since most of them are made from some kind of plastic, they will also release toxic fumes.
• Don't leave burning candles unattended. Never leave a child alone with a lit candle and don’t let kids handle matches or lighters.
• Place candles in a safe location where they cannot be knocked over and keep them out of the reach of children or pets.
• Avoid walking with a lit candle.
• Before lighting, cut the candlewick short to prevent a high flame.
• Candles with more than one wick close to one another are not safe and should not be used.

While on the subject of wicks, it’s important to know that some candles have wicks with a metallic core that may contain lead. Health Canada advises that when burned, these wicks produce lead vapors and dust, which can be harmful, especially for children and pregnant women. To check, separate the fiber strands from the wick to see if there is a metallic core. Look closely. This metallic core can be as thin as a strand of hair. If the strand leaves a gray mark when rubbed on a piece of white paper, it’s probably made out of lead and should not be burned.


For more candle safety tips, visit Health Canada.

Don’t forget to sign up for Earth Hour at


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